By Richard Gilbert, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty
The contribution of business to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is often viewed through the lens of core business, social investment, and public advocacy and policy engagement, a framework first introduced by Jane Nelson. Whilst core business and social investment have received much attention over the years, there has been little focus on the positive role business can play through advocacy to shape and influence policies needed to deliver the SDGs. However, this is increasingly under the spotlight for a number of reasons.
As the world enters a new political environment characterised in many countries by increased populism, nationalism and efforts to reduce public funding for sustainable and inclusive development, the need for progressive, responsible and accountable business leadership has been increasingly highlighted. As key partners in the delivery of the SDGs, companies have an important role to play in global and national policy processes - adding their voice in support of pro-poor policies and public investment, building understanding of how the private sector can best contribute to national development priorities (including by aligning public and private investment), and helping strengthen overall governance and accountability in the delivery of the SDGs.
Whilst more active business engagement in global and national policy dialogue is welcomed by some, there are also significant concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability in the way companies access and practice public advocacy and policy engagement. In particular, concerns are expressed about real and perceived “behind the scenes” influence exerted on governments.
Against this backdrop, responsible companies that recognise their wider role and responsibilities to society and the SDGs, are increasingly grappling with the question of how to inject a business perspective into shaping effective policy responses to long-term global and national development challenges. And, how to do so in ways that improve the enabling environment for good governance and responsible business, while also being transparent and accountable.
In part, “advocacy partnerships” seem to offer a way forward. As collaboration becomes a key approach for delivering the SDGs, companies are increasingly joining forces with civil society groups at the global and national levels, who share the same or similar policy priorities and positions, and / or who acknowledge their differences on issues and seek meaningful dialogue to build understanding of respective positions and to explore the scope for closing the gap.
Evidence suggests that advocacy partnerships, which balance the perspectives, goals, insights, and experiences of both business and civil society organisations, when also backed up by evidence and collective action, can offer a potentially powerful means to shape and influence effective policy making. For example, a recent report by Oxfam on business and the SDGs highlights the example of the Ethical Trading Initiative’s (ETI) mobilisation of a coalition of global apparel companies to publicly voice their support for the Myanmar government’s policy of a national minimum wage, which they eventually introduced despite strong opposition from some other areas of business. In the US, there has recently been high profile opposition by many corporate leaders to a number of the Trump Administration’s proposals, including a travel ban on people entering the US from certain Muslim countries, a downgrading of action on climate change and proposed cuts to overseas aid budgets.
To help answer the question: how can we strengthen business contributions to the SDGs through advocacy partnerships? - Business Fights Poverty is launching a new Challenge, which will focus on two main areas of inquiry:
Defining the value of advocacy partnerships: At a practical level, the Challenge will seek to define advocacy partnerships - their goals, activities and impacts, explore approaches to governance and measurement, and analyse the value created for participating organisations. The resulting insights will bring greater clarity and understanding amongst companies, civil society and policy makers of what advocacy partnership means and how it can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.
Identifying barriers and enablers for effective and transparent advocacy partnerships: The Challenge will also identify insights to inform the development of guidelines and recommendations for companies and civil society on how to design and implement advocacy partnerships in ways that enhance their effectiveness, transparency and accountability, and balance the needs and interests of both companies and civil society organisations.
The Challenge will draw on in-depth examples of advocacy partnerships aimed at addressing key SDG priorities and harness the collective insights of a wider range of experts through a mix of expert dialogues, interviews and online engagement, including an online discussion.
Organisations supporting the Challenge include Anglo American, GSK, Mars, Save the Children, International Alert and the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School.
 Jane Nelson (1996). Business as Partners in Development: Creating wealth for countries, companies and communities. The International Business Leaders Forum, UNDP and the World Bank. Pages 96 - 97.
 Raising the bar – rethinking the role of business in the Sustainable Development Goals, Oxfam, February 2017
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